Europa League: Young Arsenal Side Ease To Final Group With Win Over Qarabag

Laurent Koscielny played for the first time since May as Arsenal completed their near-perfect Europa League group stage with an easy win over Qarabag.

Laurent Koscielny played for the first time since May as Arsenal completed their near-perfect Europa League group stage with an easy win over Qarabag.

Unai Emery’s side had already qualified for the knockout round and go through as Group E winners, with five victories and one draw from their six matches.

Alexandre Lacazette scored the only goal of a tame match with a slick 16th-minute winner from Mesut Ozil’s pass.

After the break, Eddie Nketiah had a headed goal ruled out for offside.

And in the 89th-minute, 17-year-old winger Bukayo Saka missed a chance to become Arsenal’s youngest goalscorer in Europe as he smashed a finish into the face of Qarabag goalkeeper Vagner.

Koscielny, 33, ruptured his Achilles in last season’s semi-finals defeat by Atletico Madrid.

He had very little work to do against Qarabag, who only went close when Donald Guerrier headed over, before being replaced in the 72nd minute.

Victory extends Arsenal’s unbeaten run into a 22nd match. It is their longest run without defeat in all competitions since a 28-game stretch that ended in November 2007.

As group winners, Arsenal will avoid the four best-placed teams teams dropping down from the Champions League in the draw for the last 32, which takes place on Monday at 12:00 GMT.

The first legs will be played on 14 February, with the return legs on 21 February. As a seeded team, Arsenal will play their second leg at home.

Arsenal boss Unai Emery has been fielding teams with a blend of youth, experience and first-team fringe players during this European campaign and it was more of the same on Thursday.

Before a modest crowd, there was a first senior start for Saka, in front of club captain Koscielny and alongside Mohamed Elneny and Ozil in midfield.

Koscielny had already featured for Arsenal’s under-23s on his road to recovery, in a 2-1 defeat by Portsmouth in the Checktrade Trophy on 4 December, when Saka scored the Gunners’ goal.

Against a team who have now lost all six of their meetings with English sides by an aggregate score of 1-18, the French defender had little work to do.

Azeri champions over the past five years, Qarabag had no real attacking threat and made numerous mistakes in possession.

Koscielny made one tackle and two clearances, also finishing his match with a 100% pass success rate. The minutes he played will be of more significance, especially considering the recent injury to Rob Holding.

It was Ozil’s first appearance since 11 November, having spent five games out with a back injury. He looked uncomfortable on occasion in the first half – twice appearing to struggle back to his feet after falling in a 50-50 challenge.

He was replaced in the 83rd minute, having created the goal and three other good chances. His four key passes were more than any Arsenal player has created in a single Europa League game.

Lacazette was perhaps the more surprising selection – given he has played a regular and prominent role for Emery in the Premier League so far this season.

His goal, taken with five smart touches and a zipping low finish, was the game’s only true moment of quality, as Arsenal soon after assumed full control of an already sedate fixture now removed of any real jeopardy.

One of very few points of interest was the impact of the side’s youth players, and perhaps the brightest showing came from Saka, who came alive in the second half especially.

Aside from Lacazette, he was the only player among both sides to have a shot on target, and it was his excellent cross that found Nketiah for the disallowed goal.

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